Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Quiet Monday at the Fair

"Breakfast-goers at the Fair," wc, 3.5x5.5
When Monday came it occurred to me that perhaps the early morning would be even quieter than previous early mornings. It's such a luscious time of day on the fairgrounds when most of the thousands of machines aren't running, there is not much music (hurdy-gurdy-like or bawling rock/country) and fewer visitors. The asphalt and concrete haven't heated to griddle-like temperatures either, and a soft breeze often moves through the sleepy grounds.

Mornings at the Fair start best with breakfast in one of the concessions. There are those who swear by cinammon rolls and coffee, but fair time calls for eggs. And sausage, or bacon, and hash browns, and yes, biscuits and gravy. Most of those who work and exhibit for the eleven days of the Fair often breakfast in one or another of the tents, and everyone gets to know one another. There's something old-time about coming onto the grounds, having a farmer's breakfast, and then tramping through the animal barns and exhibitions. Yesterday morning I saw a couple who are great representatives of the Fair, and of Iowa, having the morning coffee. His ten-gallon hat isn't the usual headwear for men (that would be a "gimme cap") but certainly recalls old times.

"In the Discovery Garden," ink, 5x8
After breakfast my feet took me back to the Discovery Garden just south of the Ag Building. The garden chairs there were considerably less busy. There were people walking through, of course, but you could actually see the garden beds and landscaping most of the time. For this drawing I did the stationary items--path, pergola, fence--in pencil and added the figures as they became interesting. None of the figures drawn were actually there together, but simply placed into the drawing. Afterward
I inked the drawing, changing and enhancing here and there. In some cases this is how the beginning for a watercolor sketch happens, but doing ink first requires using waterproof ink. It's simpler to draw lightly with pencil, paint, then ink as needed to enhance.

Although it wasn't really hot, the shaded area south of the Administration Building was my next stop for drawing. The area is shaded by dozens of mature trees that spread a cool darkness over the entire grounds encompassing the Bill Riley Stage, named for the man who emceed more than fifty years of talent shows at the Fair. The stage is open-air and permanent, with surrounding permanent seating. Even if there is no show going on it's a natural gathering place, behind a long row of food booths on three sides. So I spent a profitable period of time there on a bench alongside one of the paths that wind through, watching people walk by. As in the sketch above, for this one I sketched the fixed items--tree, food booth, path--and then added the figures as they came along. This kind of sketching exercise is great fun and gives a lot of memory practice, since nobody holds still at all. Catching the gesture is everything, which adds a lot to the fun.
With so many large animals to manage, it's no mistake that the Fair has people to assist with animal control. Since the animals in question can be enormous, horseback wranglers are important. These folks patrol the streets around the animal barns on horseback, patiently sitting astride, smiling at children, posing for photos, answering questions, and occasionally wrangling a steer or horse that's gotten frisky. But sitting astride a horse for hours, even when the horse isn't moving, can bring on substantial soreness and fatigue. As I was leaving Monday around midday I saw this rider taking a rest from sitting the saddle, and giving the horse a rest besides. Sometimes you just have to get down. I sketched this simple scene in graphite, about 3.5x6.

The Fair ends in a few days, but I'll continue visiting and sketching and posting for the next two or three days, until other subjects beckon. More Fair fun to come!

Monday, August 13, 2018

An Evening at the Fair

"A View of the Grandstand, Iowa State Fair" ink, 7.5x5.5
With the thought that afternoon light might be different enough that various venues on the Iowa State Fairgrounds could look entirely different, I spent some twilight time at the Fair on August 12. As expected, the experience was considerably different.

The late afternoon wasn't sweltering, but plenty hot. The light was indeed different, slanting diagonally through the thin summer haze and not so golden as I'd hoped. The crowd had changed too. It makes perfect sense that there would be many differences--more young people, especially those in their mid- and late teens. More extended families were there too, probably because it was Sunday. But the crowd was the usual "Iowa nice"--polite, cheerful, orderly--and nearly everyone was having fun. Although I didn't draw it last evening, the ink drawing shows where I spent some time last evening while having a root beer float. The view is from the porch of the Administration Building. The porch is deep and shady, girdling the entire building like an apron. On a sultry Iowa afternoon, the height of the porch and the shade make it a great spot to cool off and watch the passing throngs. The top of the Grandstand shows over the roof of the Steer N Stein food and beer concession.

"Ice Sculpting" wc, 4x6
After the last slurp of root beer I wandered across to the front of the Agriculture Building where a crowd had gathered. The attraction was a man carving ice with a chainsaw. Ice carving outdoors on a 90 degree afternoon is an unusual sight, but the carver was working away with real aplomb. He had a relatively thin slab of ice tipped onto one side and had begun to carve a bas-relief of a bucking horse. The spectators stood or sat in small rapt groups. If he had been using a different tool one wonders if the crowd would be so big. The final results will be on display in the refrigerated display inside the Ag Building.

"Super Bull, Iowa State Fair 2018" wc, 4x6
A trip to the Iowa State Fair is never complete until you visit the Big Bull. He is always housed in a separate pen at the entrance to the Cattle Barn, and each year's champion is equally astonishing in size. This year's winner was a giant at over 3000 pounds, and while he looked completely docile in this pen, it was also reassuring to see that huge bulk snubbed up very close to the fence. And of course his breed are hornless, another reassuring detail.  No doubt he will be the sire of many more of his breed.

"The Behemoth," wc, 4x6
During the past several days of the Fair I've been walking past a huge farm implement--a tractor--parked along one of the sidewalks bearing a sign proclaiming it's tires to the "World's Largest Agricultural Tires" so I stopped on my way out of the grounds to sketch it. It's a John Deere implement that looks almost impossibly big. The mounted tires are twice as wide as most tractor tires, and taller besides. I can't help being fascinated by these giant machines. What kind of farm must need such a behemoth?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Saturday at the Fair

"Giant Pumpkins and the State Fair," wc,5x8
One of the decidedly interesting features of the Iowa State Fair is the competition. Consider that more than 60,000 entries for competition are received for contests ranging from farm animals to fine art. There are all sorts of contests involving the prowess of humans and/or animals--horses pulling huge loads, pig races, and many others. But perhaps my favorite lineup of contests are those for the largest animal or other farm produce. There is the Big Bull, the Big Boar, the Big Ram (even a Big Bunny) but the best is the Biggest Pumpkin. These are an exquisitely specialized sort of pumpkin, raised for their size alone and always inspiring awe in fair attendees. This year's biggest was a sizeable 795 pounds, though that's smaller than last year's I think. And not really huge--there is a website of international weightoffs of giant pumpkins where the largest registered weighed over 1700 pounds. Nonetheless, these are respectable squashes. The weigh-in was on Friday, but I only got around to sketching them today.

"Outside the Grandstand," wc, 3.5x7
Another sketch from today is of the crowds on the Grand Concourse just in front of the Grandstand. I stopped in the shade to sketch the sign and the people as they streamed by. The giant grandstands loom to the north of the concourse, towering about three or four stories and holds something like 25,000 when completely packed. These grounds have hosted deliberate locomotive crashes, stunt fliers, all kinds of racing, and of course big musical acts from pop and country. The evenings at the fairgrounds are much different than the days. As night falls and the air cools, people stroll and snack on the incredible range of foods (many not so healthy, alas) before attending a show. It's a pleasant time at the fair, but I wasn't staying that long.

Unlike the first two days, the fairgrounds began to be crowded a lot earlier since it was Saturday. Maybe it's a holdover from the work week, but people seemed more intent and in more of a hurry today. Whatever the reason, as the fairgrounds filled up and the temperatures rose, I realized it was time to pack it in for a day. It's easier to do that, knowing that there will be several more days to explore and savor.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday at the Fair

"The Tram," watercolor, 5x10
This morning at the State Fair was lovely. Unlike yesterday, when the humidity and temperature were higher, there was a fine breeze from the northeast and the sky was mostly clear. For whatever reason, fairgoers were more relaxed and less hurried today, and cheerier besides.

After a hearty breakfast at one of the concessions I hopped the tram at the foot of the Grand Concourse and rode happily to the highest spot on the grounds, Grandfather's Farm. There is a grand old barn up there at the top that dates to the days when this was a homestead farm. It houses the Iowa Wine Experience now, but even before the Civil War it was a working farm barn. The house has been demolished, but happily the barn is there as a reminder of days gone by. As always, there were considerably fewer visitors in this relatively remote corner. The view from the grounds of the old homestead is simply spectacular. To the west you can see miles beyond the city skyline.

"Fiddling Contest," watercolor, 3.5x5.5
After a visit to the museum I ambled downhill to Pioneer Hall where an old time fiddling contest was about to begin. The stage is at the north end of the old wooden building. Big doors propped open at the east and west ends, plus huge floor fans, make the old place habitable. The fiddlers this morning ranged in age from 8 to 16, and all of them, even the youngest, made those bows smoke. Each was required to play a hoedown, a waltz, and a selection of the contestant's choice. They could be accompanied or not. These young people were amazingly good--one young man almost professional. He played the old fiddle tune "Orange Blossom Special" (ask your dad) about as well as anyone could, drawing prolonged applause. The crowd was big and appreciative, but today's time was a bit limited so I made my way downhill again, past an exhibit of restored farm tractors that I always love to visit, then past the chainsaw sculptors who carve big chunks of wood into many creative projects.

"Demo Garden, ISF 2018," wc, 3.5x5.5
The Grand Concourse was getting full, but not oppressive, and the light breeze held, even at the foot of the hill. Down there, by the Agriculture Building (home of the Butter Cow) is a demonstration garden, planted and maintained by master gardener volunteers. Every year in conjunction with local garden and landscape dealers they produce a garden that shows off useful materials and techniques, new species and cultivars, and provides a spot of shade and color in the midst of the hurly-burly of the fair. This year the hydrangeas are huge and there are cascades of colorful blossoms everywhere. There was an unoccupied Cape Cod chair that beckoned, so I spent some time sketching a corner of the demonstration. One of the gardeners and I spent a fine half hour discussing all manner of garden lore, but in the end it was time to head home.

But, as someone famous once said "Tomorrow is another day."

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Iowa State Fair

Another year has gone by and the Iowa State Fair is back. Last year I spent quite a few days sketching at the fair and this year I plan on doing even more. There are opportunities for interesting compositions and subjects virtually everywhere you look. Opening Day was August 9, and all of the usual attractions were in place: the butter cow, the Avenue of Breeds, the pork-chops-on-a-stick (and who-knows what else?).

Early in the morning the crowd wasn't too big, the air was cool a bit breezy. After a farm breakfast in one of the concessions a ride around the grounds allows good reconnaissance without walking miles across the more than 400 acres of grounds. The trams are pulled by enormous farm tractors, manned by volunteers, lifesavers on a broiling August day. I rode up the hill from the Grand Concourse to Pioneer Hall, my first stop of the morning.

Pioneer Hall was built in 1886 as one of the original buildings constructed at the current fairgrounds, and it's the last one standing. Today it houses a working blacksmith, an old-time letter press, a stage that hosts various contests and musical acts, and a vintage flea market, as well as exhibits of prize-winning antiques. This year a group is rebuilding a tractor.

Steve the Blacksmith, hammering iron
It's great fun to visit and see someone spinning wool, making horseshoes, or fiddling up a storm. The blacksmith runs the smith everyday, thankfully next to a wide-open door, which provides breezes most of the time. Still, he's often bathed in sweat as he hammers hot iron on a huge anvil in the middle of the space. This morning he wasn't too busy with fairgoers which gave me time to sketch him and the wall of his smithy. Afterward I went over and showed him the sketch, which he kindly signed for me, although he said his scrawl wouldn't be recognizable. Still, a working smithy is fun, and might become food for a painting some day.

This first week the fair is going to be a daily visit for me, and I'll probably post something most days.
From last year's fair:
Two Tractors
State Fair Sketchbook

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Corel Painter Part 2

Step 1 of a digital portrait (Painter 2019)
Since my last post about Painter 2019 I've worked on several pictures using the oil paint tool. This series shows how the work progressed on a portrait of a friend, Dwight. I used a reference photo plus personal observation in social settings to make these. As always I used my Cintiq tablet but in this case Painter 2019 was the app.

I began with a canvas (you can call it a background) that I toned to a light cream color. Using a medium bristle brush tool, I laid in the basic shapes and a midtone as an ebauche. Manipulating color and brush sizes, I began refining the portrait by adding patches of various colors throughout the face, rather than concentrating on any one area. That strategy works best in my experience to establish coherence of color and values. At the end of about an hour and a half, the portrait had reached the state to the right. I stopped for a day to let the picture rest in my mind and took it up again the next day.

Step 2
This is step 2 of the portrait. Working in layers, I added color in many places, trying particularly to emphasize color and shapes in the sitter's face. I also scrubbed a light blue-green around the head to place it more solidly in space. Using the oil paint tool I added color with a medium bristle tool, employing another layer to begin unifying the colors of his face. This step took perhaps another hour of adjusting the likeness, color, and value. After that I put it away until the next day, letting the image percolate in my mind.

This is the finish of my oil portrait in Painter 2019. In this stage I used a softer glazing brush as the main tool, blending and glazing colors over the previous step. In this stage I took colors from the previous portrait and punched the chroma, continuing to use value to emphasize shape and volume of the head. Although this is only a study of Painter and not a full-dress portrait, the results are encouraging. Further, it's been easier to learn the program while doing this portrait than I expected it to be. Obviously this can be refined considerably, and I've a long way to go in working with the program. Nonetheless, there is enormous potential in this new version of Painter.

My next project with Painter will probably involve using the Thick Paint tool to make a picture. If it goes well I'll make another post.

Regardless, Painter 2019 turns out to be a great addition to my digital art programs. It's pricey at $500, particularly since my go-to program is now downloadable for free. Still, if you're looking for a digital art app, Painter 2019 deserves your consideration.

Corel Painter

Friday, August 03, 2018

No Brushes to Wash

"Joshua Trees, Full Moon" digital painting done with Sketchbook
Learning to paint digitally is an interesting process. In some ways it's like real oil or watercolor application, depending on the program. You can mix and layer colors, sharpen or blur edges and make a digital image look almost like a traditional art work. But in other ways making digital art is a deficient thing. There are all kinds of sensory inputs that are missing--no smell of linseed oil and turpentine, no feeling of unction in paint applied with a snappy bristle brush, no spreading watercolors into wet paper as washes go down in succession, no pastel dust. It's a slightly remote experience.

On the other hand, you can produce an effective and pleasing image with nearly all of the effects of real paint and none of the physical complications, mess or cleanup. This picture, "Joshua Trees, Full Moon," was based on an online image of the Joshua Tree National Park in California. I had read something about joshua trees and looked up the subject out of curiosity. Turns out these desert plants aren't trees at all but a kind of yucca that simply grow tall and have limited foliage since they live in dry climates. They have a bristly, forbidding appearance and in certain deserts are the tallest vegetation for miles.

The harsh sun-baked landscape and foliage of the desert southwest lent themselves to this nocturne, which I drew and painted on a Cintiq tablet using Sketchbook. I started with a graded background, added a layer for the full moon and another for the mountains and background, then another for the tree and low growth in the foreground, keeping the colors and values muted. The graded background served not only as sky but also as the desert plain stretching into the distance. The colors are mostly very dark reds and almost chroma-less yellows and greens, applied using the oil brush tool.

But no brushes to wash.